Living apart together? Mobile professionals and long-term residents in Lisbon’s city centre

By Franz Buhr, Institute of Geography and Spatial Planning, University of Lisbon

In the last ten years, not only have tourist arrivals to Lisbon increased exponentially, but the city has also become a hotspot for other kinds of transient populations. Digital nomads, ‘expats’, lifestyle migrants, and other transnationally mobile professionals are increasingly present in the city’s social landscape. What are the impacts of these new temporary residents in the city’s dynamics?

Let us go for a tour around the neighbourhoods of Santos and São Bento in Lisbon. You will find centuries-old hilly streets, the tram tracks, tile façades, and… Nordic coffee shops, hip cocktail bars, and brunch eateries! Not long ago, these shops were either abandoned, derelict, or housed small family businesses such as traditional Portuguese bakeries or Cape Verdean restaurants. Now, these two neighbourhoods are probably the epicentre of a new kind of commercial dynamics attracting tourists and locals, but particularly appealing to digital nomads, ‘expats’, and other foreign residents whose purchase power is (more often than not) well above the Portuguese average.

During the most severe months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when there were virtually no tourists around, some of these specialty coffee shops, artisanal bakeries, and patisseries survived on the basis of their foreign-resident clientele. In one of our SMARTDEST interviews, the owner of a specialty coffee shop in the area argued that 95% of his customers were of foreign origin. “Lots of Germans, French, Americans… They come to Portugal but keep working for their countries and have a lot more economic capacity than those being paid Portuguese-level salaries” he stated.

Once considered ‘crossing points’ to the more touristic areas of the city, Santos and São Bento are now attracting their own visitors. The SMARTDEST team in Lisbon asked local residents if they also visited, bought, or ate at these new gourmet cafés and restaurants. Our preliminary results point to what one resident called ‘parallel worlds’: on the one side, traditional forms of commerce frequented by the local elderly population; on the other, new gourmet restaurants and trendy shops where one finds tourists, but mainly high-income foreign residents. Although some of these transient populations find short-term rentals within these same neighbourhoods, their consumption geographies seem to rarely intersect or interact with those of long-term residents.

Another research participant, mother of three children and living in the area for 25 years, said that “the ambiance feels very different now, because buildings have been renovated, trash is always collected, gardens look beautiful (…), and it’s nice to have that shop selling beautifully-made croissants, but they are super expensive and we won’t buy croissants every day. It’s all made for people in transit (de passagem)”.

Can these two ‘parallel worlds’ interact with each other? Do long-term residents feel excluded in some way? Are traditional forms of commerce and retail doomed to disappear? These are some of the critical questions to be discussed collectively at the future CityLab organised by the SMARTDEST project with local stakeholders and residents.

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